Notes From All Over


There’s no better indication that Black Rock City is emerging from the desert than when the Spires first start sprouting around the playa.

Well, they don’t really “sprout.” They are actually assembled at the Spires work station at the Depot, then hammered into place in the field.

Blackthorn and one of his teams and Booya’s Roadworkds crew were out on the 6 o’clock promenade to the Man, laying the bases of the first Spires into the ground. City Superintendent Coyote was there, too, and when the workers finished the first of the Spires tasks, he used the occasion to pull out his phone and do a reading from his upcoming book on the history of Black Rock City.

Coyote’s been doing this for about 20 years, and his first time might have been the most memorable. We’ll let him tell the story, but suffice it to say that the first time he worked DPW, the circumstances included a three-day speed bender, a very bad acid trip, and a solitary cloud in the sky that seemed to be following him around the playa.

Blackthorn sights the Spires base

That first year was a rough one, and he wound up doing all the Spires on the Promenade himself. Of course, there weren’t as many Spires as there are today (eight on a side vs. seventeen now), but it was still a lot of work for one person. But Coyote found redemption in the work, as you’ll see when you read or listen to his story.

Wide load coming on the playa

The trucker stopped at Point One was talking to Kiote of the Gate crew. “You know,” the driver said, “we have electronic logs now. … How am I going to tell them that I was waiting for a 747 to get out of the way?”

We wish him luck with that, but it happens to be the truth.

A motorcade escorted the big jet from a work yard in Empire, through Gerlach and onto the desert. It’s the third appearance on the playa for the 747, and it’s bigger than ever. This year the beast has its landing gear, and it’ll be towed around Black Rock City. The crew also plans to attach portions of the wings, plus the nose cone, and they’ve already added a “sunroof” up top, plus an articulating staircase.

“We’ve had some lovely interactions with media, and we’ve had some horrible interactions with media,” Rufus, one of the build leads, said. Some of the negative press has come in the form of art criticism, and there has been criticism about spending so much money on a project like this.

Making the turn

Neither argument holds much sway with us. We don’t want to go over old ground, but we’re in the camp that says putting a 747 on a dry desert lakebed is art. Please don’t @ us, it’s art. As for the second argument, well, you could say that about all of Burning Man, and about many other things, but here’s our answer: What is it worth, and how much is appropriate to spend, to inspire someone? If you come out here and have a transformative experience, how much should it cost to make that happen?

“I’m so excited that after three years, it’s finally happening, it’s all coming together,” Sunflower said as she watched the 747 roll by. “We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers come out and make this happen.”

The 747 crew even had two Boeing engineers fly over from Germany to help with their fabrication efforts. “The Boeing guys love us,” Rufus said. “The company doesn’t say anything, but there’s a Reddit group that (the engineers) all talk on. … They never get to be in the belly of the plane. … They design it, but they don’t build it.”

Here are some more pics from the landing:


They waxed the Man on Tuesday night, and he came away looking quite spiffy for the effort.

In this case, waxing didn’t mean that we removed the Man’s unwanted hair. No, this waxing was more literal – wax is melted, burlap sacks are dipped in the molten wax, and then the sacks are attached to the Man with wire, all so that he will burn more efficiently when the torch is put to him.

Crimson was there in the dusk, carrying around a crystal decanter of Courvoisier, plus little sipping glasses for sharing.

Crimson brought refreshments

Johnny Poynton, of Temple and Lighthouses fame, was there with his big hat, big laugh and big heart. There were other members of the Temple of Galaxia crew there too, including Jerry James, whose name might ring a bell. He was Larry Harvey’s partner in adventure at the very first Burning Man in 1986 in San Francisco. He and Larry built the first Man in a back yard and then hauled it to Baker Beach and set it aflame.

We remember Larry talking fondly about that first burn. He didn’t know what was going to happen, and he was doing it mostly on a lark (although there are credible reports that say Larry was trying to exorcise the demons of a failed relationship). But Larry said when the fire was lit, people gathered around, someone started playing a guitar, others started dancing, and he realized he had touched a collective nerve. “We might have something here,” he remembered thinking. More than 30 years later, there’s still … something … happening here.

Jerry James and Opa and an alas unidentified friend

Opa asked us to snap a picture for him, and we didn’t realize right away the importance of the shot. In the same we have the man who built the first Man, plus the man who, with David Best, built the first Temple. Cool.

The gathering was a good one, but it ended for us in a hurry when big drops of rain started coming down, and the wind began to howl. The dust suddenly was everywhere, and as much as we love the Man crew, we weren’t interested in getting stranded and spending the night in their storage container. So we got in our vehicle and inched in what we hoped was the right direction. The dust eased a bit and we could make out the lights of the HEaT yard, so we had a beacon guiding us home.

The first half of the next day was overcast, which made for gloriously cool conditions. Good lord it felt good to be out of the sun. But the furnace was back on by noontime, and we were back in the frying pan.

And then, in the early evening, a weather cell rolled out of Gerlach and hit us with a heavy, but brief, downpour. City driving was shut down for an hour, but the playa dried quickly and normal operations resumed.

Here are some more pics from the waxing:


Flip and the mobile Ghetto Bar have had a busy week, and there won’t be any letup soon. On Tuesday they rolled out to the waxing of the Man; On Wednesday they set up both in the Commissary and the Bike Shop; Thursday they’ll be at the Transfer station; Friday will be the big hip hop party at First Camp, and Saturday is Early Man.

When he’s not supervising the bar operations or giving daughter Hazel a wagon ride to the morning meeting, Flip might be listening to Stephen A. Smith or Mad Dog in the Morning, because he’s a huge sports fan. And he’s a Philly sports fan, so he’s having a pretty good year, at least baseball-wise. We try not to bring up the Warriors TOO often.

Putting up shade structures for all the organization staffers who need and want it is a bear of a job. Firey Irie is the new Shade boss, and she confirms that “It’s really challenging.” Somehow, the crews that do one of the hardest jobs on the playa remain relentlessly upbeat. You hear them pounding, but you also hear them singing, cracking jokes, and laughing. “At the beginning,” Irie said, “it was just getting everyone rolling, but now we’re at the halfway point …” and she has a better sense of whether she’s ahead or behind. The demand for Shade is always increasing, but it is one of Irie’s responsibilities is to make sure that her mandate stays in the realm of the reasonable. But it’s difficult, and sometimes impossible, to say no. “I’m hanging in there,” she said.

Richard Rhodes and his daughter Fiona

We visited Richard Rhodes out beyond the Temple as he was beginning to install his massive Resolute Arch. There are only a few art pieces under construction so far – the Man, the Temple, Bloom (which is making a return visit), the 747 and Rhodes’ Arch.

The Arch is made of hand-carved granite (done with hammer and chisel) and will soar over the desert floor, with a piece missing near its apex. This is Rhodes’ third time displaying art on the playa, and it is his most ambitious work. At night, visuals will be projected onto the piece as music plays beneath it.

“In the daytime it’s a sculpture; at night it’ll be a rave venue,” Rhodes joked.

Rhodes initially came to Burning Man at the urging of friends, but he said, “I’m a bad tourist. I’ll come if I can do a sculpture.” So he came in 2010 and he did what he called a modest work, and he said, “People loved it and it was fun, but I didn’t know that people came and did world-class work here.”

So he resolved not to come back until he could bring “something serious.” It took seven years, and last year be brought Lithic Altars, which he called a great piece but very subtle. “We did it as a test run for this piece.

“This is a great metaphor for these times we live in,” he said, referring to an arch that is missing a piece but is still standing. After the desert, Resolute Arch will tour, including a visit to the Venice Biennial. “I think it will mean something different every place it goes,” Rhodes said.

Hannah Jove brought out her best for the Yellow Bikes night

The folks at the Yellow Bikes camp had their annual get-together to help staffers get their bikes in shape for the event. More than 200 bikes were reconditioned and sent on their way with new owners.

It was a long night; the work party started at 6:30, and even by 9:30, there was a line out the door and curving down the block. “I’ve never seen people self-organize like that,” Ballyoo Betty said in admiration the next morning.

The shop was full of blowing dust as the Bike Shop crew fixed chains and seats and handlebars. And this was VINTAGE dust blowing around, dust that caked on bikes that had been left behind in previous burns.

The crew puts out hundreds of Yellow Bikes during the event, so participants can use one to get where they’re going, then leave it for the next person who needs a ride. They are not there to fix your bike, although it’s hard for them to say no sometimes.

“My favorite repair was for one sparkle pony who had too many glowsticks caught in her chain,” one crewmember said. Glowsticks in her CHAIN? “Oh yeah,” he said, “they were caught up everywhere.”

Here are some more pics from the Bike shop:

Ben Zero reminded us the other morning to keep an eye out for Lobster Camp this year.

“You’ve never been there??” he said excitedly. Well, no, jeez, we haven’t, not in all our years of coming here.

“Oh you have to go,” he said. “A group of marine biologists comes out, they usually set up around 3:30 and G or E, right around there. Their whole thing is to set up an environment so a live lobster can flourish in the desert.” We were starting to visualize the setup in our mind, the bubbling water tanks, and we silently wondered what the desiccated playa fairy shrimp would think about all the attention the lobster was getting. “On Friday night of the event,” Ben continued, “They invite about 10 or 15 people in, and they eat the lobster. It’s the toughest ticket to get here, by far.”

Then Ben added, “All of this is false. It’s just a story.”

He said he and Larry Harvey were fond of fictions like this, ones that involve long and complicated set-ups, without much payoff at the end. “He’d stop by my desk at headquarters and ask, ‘Got any new ones?’” Ben said.

And that was a side of Larry that not many got to see, his goofiness. Sure, he could be philosophical and pedantic, and he was insanely intelligent and articulate, but he was also a goofball.

Jennifer Raiser tells a hilarious story of Larry’s setup around the Man base in 2015, the year of the souks, when he donned an Arabian costume and invited people to come in and look over his gathered treasures (which were really not valuable in the slightest, unless you made them so). It was an exercise in absurdity, and right in Larry’s wheelhouse.

Remember, Burning Man’s first trip to the Black Rock desert was done in collaboration with the SF Cacophony Society, a group of people who had been pulling public pranks around the city for years. They were the ones, too, who invented Santacon, an event launched to poke fun at holiday consumerism, before it was co-opted and became nothing more than an obnoxious bar crawl.

Ben encouraged us to make up stories about Lobster Camp too, and to send people off on journeys to try to find it. The more outlandish the story, the better.

Larry the goofball would get a kick out of it.

Here are some more (random) pics:

There isn’t too much light pollution on the playa yet, so you can easily see the Milky Way and Mars glowing in the night sky


Weldboy’s new hairstyle is causing quite a stir


Sgt. Slaughter can always light up a room, but never more so than when she wears a sparkly getup in the Commissary


We had some rain, but not everyone thought it was a bad thing


The Artery build crew


The IT team


Pope doing his thing





















About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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